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Great Expectations Program Helps Foster Care Youth Get A College Education

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Courtesy of Great Expectations

In 2010, there were 6,271 young people in the Virginia Foster Care System.   Through no fault of their own, these young people were removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, or other family circumstances that prevented them from staying in their homes.  In that year, 52.6% were male and 47.4% were female.  More than half (52.4%) were white, 39.6% were African-American, and the remaining 8% were multiracial, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Native American.   A high percentage of these young people are over 16 years of age; 28% are between 16 and 19, and 8.4% are over age 19.

Although some foster care youth are eventually reunited with their families or placed in loving adoptive homes, some of them stay in the foster care system and reach adulthood without finding permanent homes.  Referred to as “aging out” of foster care, research has shown that these foster youth who never find permanent families are more likely to have lower educational attainment, are more likely to utilize public assistance, and are more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system.  Virginia has one of the highest “aging out” rates for foster youth exiting the foster care system in the nation.  The total annual costs to the Commonwealth of Virginia for foster youth were estimated at $29.7 million in 2010, or $41,460 per aging-out foster youth.

The Virginia Foundation for Community College Education (VFCCE) and the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) began a statewide initiative known as Great Expectations in order to help Virginia’s foster care youth be successful, receive an education, and go on to live a fulfilling and productive life.  Great Expectations is currently helping 377 students complete high school and gain access to higher education, workforce training, and employment opportunities to improve their likelihood of success.  The program is partially funded by federal grants and state funds, but its primary funding comes from philanthropic donations from private foundations, corporations, and individuals.  Verizon Communications is a proud sponsor of this program. Great Expectations programs are currently operating in 15 of Virginia’s 23 community colleges.

Education is considered to be the key factor in determining whether foster youth can successfully transition into independent adulthood.  Great Expectations offers a variety of services ensuring that foster youth will have the support and contacts they need to complete high school and gain access to higher education, workforce training, and employment opportunities.  The services provided by the Great Expectations program through coaches and mentors includes life skills training, career education, financial literacy training, mentoring, and tutoring.

As of June 2010, all of Virginia’s 23 community colleges enroll students who currently are or have previously been in foster care.  Tidewater Community College accounted for 20% of all Virginia students who were foster youth, followed by Northern Virginia Community College (18%) and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College (12%).

Although the majority of foster care youth are already receiving public assistance, there are other costs of foster care to society.  Foster youth tend to have less educational attainment than their peers, which translates into higher unemployment and thus fewer contributions to the economy.  In addition, the lower educational attainment leads to lower overall earnings.  Nationally, only .9% of former foster youth earn more than $50,000 per year while 38.4% make less than $5,000 per year, six years after exiting the foster care system.  Former foster care youth are more likely to receive welfare and government benefits, and engage in illegal activities.  Based on national data, 68.4% of young adults who were former foster care youth have been arrested (compared with 10.4% of the general population) and 7.5% end up incarcerated.  It is estimated that Virginia taxpayers incurred an additional $1.7 million bill in 2010 due to the high incarceration rates for foster care youth.

A recent report written for the Great Expectations program by Chmura Economics & Analytics, “Measuring the Costs of Foster Care and the Return on Investment for the ‘Great Expectations’ Initiative” highlights the value of the program to the Commonwealth of Virginia.  It is estimated that the program will save Virginia $7.8 million per year if the current 377 participants graduate with an associate degree.  Even if only half of the students graduate, $3.9 million per year will be saved in taxpayer expense.  The annual operating costs of Great Expectations are $1.2 million; the benefits vastly outweigh the program costs.

As a board member of the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education, I have met many of the students currently enrolled in Great Expectations and have heard their remarkable stories.  I can attest to the fact that Great Expectations is creating wonderful opportunities for foster care youth to receive a good education and is breaking the previously established cycle for young people who had the misfortune to end up in foster care.   Due to limitations on funding and capacity, there are still many foster care students who have not had the opportunity to have access to the program.  I urge you to find out more about this successful program which is providing a bright future for Virginia’s foster youth by evening the odds and providing transitional support to at-risk foster teens as they finish high school, enter community college, and eventually gain employment and achieve independence.  For more information, contact Carol Underhill, Great Expectations Program Director at  or visit the website at

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